Chapter 27: What if?
He and the defense attorney were alone. They were – where? Nowhere. Not only no courtroom, no hospital room, no room at all, nor any outdoors scene. They might as well have been standing in a pea-souper such as he had seen in London.
“So, now what? We stand around waiting?”
“Not exactly. But we are finished pretending to judge you. The whole charade was to help you to see your life more clearly.”
“And you aren’t my defense attorney any more, I take it.”
“Never was. You can call me Nick Adams.”
“Nick Adams, right.” He smiled. “All right, Nick. So, your current function is –?”
“You can think of me as a friend.”
The man wanted him to ask; he waited him out. Nice to have the shoe on the other foot for once.
“You don’t want to know what to expect next?”
“What I expect is that you will get around to telling me, sooner or later.”
“Nick seemed to repress a small internal smile. “I must say, I like your attitude. All right. We just took a fast look at the life you lived, some of the highlights. The process isn’t over until you look at the life you didn’t live. The negative space in the picture, you might say.”
“Sure, `The path not taken.’ Thank you Robert Frost. How, exactly?”
“Instead of trying to explain it to you, let’s just do it. Think of any moment of your life that you’d like to relive. Imagine it vividly, the way you did in 3D life. Then, as things unfold, change them. If you turned left, turn right. Or go straight on, or stop, whatever you want. Change things; see what happens.”
“Okay.” He paused. “Start at birth, I suppose? Or, work backwards?”
“Start where you want to start. Beginning, end, anywhere in the middle, it doesn’t matter. Everything connects.”
“No particular guidelines?”
“You might begin with whatever wells up unbidden.”
“Huh. Okay.” He closed his non-3D eyes, and he instantly knew. When he reopened them, there he was, wounded, helpless, in pain, being carried on a stretcher in the middle of the night. He wasn’t looking at the scene; he was immersed in it. He had forgotten the noise of the shells, the concussions. He was being carried to the first-aid station, and a shell hit close enough to drop his stretcher-bearers, and him, to the ground. The men arranged him back on the stretcher and picked him up, apologizing in Italian and with their eyes.
He was both in the scene and observing it, an odd bifurcation. “July 8, 1918,” he said.
Nick was nowhere to be seen, but he heard him say, “Feel free to go back before the shell hit. Or have it miss you.”
“I can do that?”
“Of course you can. That’s the point of `what if’ scenarios. How does your life change if you never get wounded? Ask to see some consequences.”
“We’re going to be here quite a while, then!”
“No need for detail, just get the highlights.”
He returned to wherever it was.
“So what happened?”
“What I expect you know happened. My life began to play out, a rapid sequence of things, like riffling a deck of cards. Is this supposed to be what would have happened, or just what might have happened?”
“We aren’t dealing in certainties, here, Mr. Hemingway. It isn’t like there was only one possible path. At any moment of your life, the rest of your life is more decisions, and every decision means another choice, opening up new paths and closing others. The more decision points you pass, the more indefinite is the path beyond. So what changed when you didn’t get wounded?”
“Everything changed! It wasn’t even my life anymore. I didn’t spend six months in the hospital listening to wounded veterans. Never met Chink. Never met Agnes. Didn’t have a first love in Italy. I didn’t go home on the Giuseppe Verdi, didn’t get interviewed by the New York paper or by Oak Leaves, never talked to any civic groups, Therefore, I never met Mrs. Connable, and never spent the winter in Toronto hanging around the Toronto Weekly Star offices, and so I never got to become one of their free-lance feature writers. Since I was never a wounded war veteran, I didn’t have a year’s worth of insurance payments to tide me over while I tried to learn to write, so in some versions I gave in and went to college, and in others I got my job back at the Kansas City Star, or I found some kind of job in the Oak Park area – that is, Chicago.”
“Did you meet Hadley?”
“That seems to depend. If I went to college or went back to Kansas City, no. If I stayed in Chicago until Hash came up to visit Katy, maybe yes, depending on what I was doing. But even when I did meet her, I wasn’t the same person, and often enough we didn’t really click. Without July 8th, I wasn’t the same person. I came home safe and sound and boring and bored.”
“On the other hand, without it you didn’t spend years being afraid of the dark, or pulling scrap metal out of your leg.”
“True. Still, without it, I don’t see how I would ever have gotten to Paris.“
“Ready to try again? Leave July 8 as it was, and change something else.”
“Okay. That was almost fun. A hell of a lot better than listening to people attack me.”
“Is that your impression of what they were doing?”
“Let’s do some more.”
“A suggestion? You may want to go about your examination systematically. Perhaps begin at the beginning.”
“All right.” And off he went again, this time all the way back to his childhood.
“And what did you find?”
“I guess I was always going to be a writer. I wrote for the school paper, I was editor of the literary magazine. Maybe I could have decided to go off to college. It wouldn’t have been so bad. It would have been fun, because I would have made it fun. I would have put together a mob there, same as I did everywhere. By the time I was old enough to enlist, I would have had a year of college, and that would have made a difference, later. Even if I had gone into the ambulances, like plenty of other college guys, I would have had a better idea about college, what it had to offer.”
“You wouldn’t have been afraid of college men.”
He winced. “Since you put it that way, okay. But I would have been just as harsh on their shortcomings. It’s just, I would have seen them more clearly.”
“And you wouldn’t have come across the Kansas City Star’s style sheet.”
“That’s true. But even in what I wrote in high school, you can see my style emerging. You can’t tell, really, what would have happened.”
“Did you look to see what would have happened if you had stayed in school and missed the war entirely?”
A decisive shake of the head. “That was never going to happen.”
“Your defective eyesight guaranteed that the Army would never have taken you.”
“I would have found a way, one way or the other. I might have wound up in a different unit, and maybe wound up in France instead of Italy. All kinds of things might have been different, but I wouldn’t have stayed home.”
“All right, I think you have the idea. Look at your life as you didn’t live it. If you find things you want to talk about, we can do that – I’ll be here – or you can just keep exploring. It’s up to you.”
“And how long do we go about it?”
“Until you get tired of doing it.”
“Could go on forever.”
“It isn’t like we’re on the clock here. It’s really up to you. Just go until you’re finished.”
“Okay, I get it. I suppose I’ll see you whenever.” He turned his attention inward, waiting for a question to surface. It didn’t take long.
“What if you hadn’t become friends with Bill Smith?”
“Well,” he thought, What if?”
In the short term, nothing much changed. He was still spending his summers by the lake, still working the farm at his father’s long-distance direction, still enjoying the woods and the water and the town and the freedom from the schoolyear’s discipline. And there were other boys to pal around with: He always knew how to draw people to him, and he always liked having a mob to do things with. But – he realized – a little way down the road, without Bill, no Katy! Without Katy and Bill, no sharing an apartment with their brother Y.K. Without Y.K., no introduction to Sherwood Anderson, no meeting others of the Chicago Renaissance like Carl Sandberg, plus he probably would have gone to Italy as he planned, instead of Paris. And if he hadn’t been in Paris, could he have met Dos? Even if he had gotten to Paris, how could he have hoped to meet Pound, and yes, Gertrude, without Anderson’s letters of introduction?
In fact, without Bill, and therefore Katy, how would he have met Katy’s best friend Hadley Richardson? And if he hadn’t fallen in love with Hadley, would he ever have gotten to Europe at all?
He shook his head. It was like learning that he had spent all his life walking on the thinnest of ice, never realizing that it was only his forward movement that stopped it from cracking and breaking under his weight. “Hairbreadth Harry,” he said.
“You bet.” The thought came to him. “It’s a good thing we were good skaters.”
“You think you just happened to be in the right place at the right time, over and over again?”
“Well, when you put it that way, maybe not.”
“You bet, maybe not. And the more you look, the more you’ll see. You thought, what if you’d never met Hadley, but what if you had met her, and on the same night you did meet her, but the two of you hadn’t clicked?”
There they were in Y.K.’s apartment, and Katy was introducing her friend from St. Louis, but the evening didn’t work. Katy’s Chicago crowd didn’t warm to her friend and sweep her into their circle. Hadley, on her part, didn’t open up and show her sense of fun. She had played the piano, but formally, classically, not swinging into the wild jazz tunes that made them realize that they were young and alive. Even the liquor didn’t help; everyone remained polite, restrained. He had stood there admiring her long red hair, but wishing it wasn’t all so awkward. He got out as soon as he decently could, and kept his distance from her for the rest of her visit.
“But it never could have happened that way,” he said. “We were meant for each other. We hadn’t been talking for ten minutes before we were both feeling it.”
A half-heard voice: (“And if that first ten minutes hadn’t happened? If she had had a cold, or you had? If she had been too shy to let her real self show, or you were too boisterous and self-aggrandizing? Plenty of ships pass in the night. What if you had been two more such ships?”)
If he had still been in a body, he might have felt a shiver.
“If you can’t admit it here and now, when and where will you ever be able to do so?”
“Who says there’s anything to admit?”
“You know there is. If you don’t admit it, if you can’t, then God help you.”
“All right! I admit it! I would have been lost.”
“What would you have been missing?”
“Hadley’s warmth! Someone to love, someone to love me.”
“Someone to hold you in the darkness.”
Reluctantly: “That too.”
“At age 21, without Hadley, what were you, Mr. Hemingway?”
It was humiliating to admit it, even now.
“Oh come on! Who are you posing for?”
A sigh, or its non-3D equivalent. “Nobody, I guess. Myself, maybe.”
“Yes, and what’s the pose for, Mr. Afraid Of Nothing?”
He knew. “I needed her. I needed somebody, and thank God it was her.” Blurting it out: “I couldn’t be alone.”
Silence. After a moment he felt constrained to break it. “Well? Nothing to say? No snide comments?”
“I was letting you sit with the realization.”
“Like I didn’t know it!”
“Yes, but now you have admitted it. It makes a world of difference to admit something. It frees you. Why do you suppose that you were repressing that particular realization, Mr. Hemingway?”
“I don’t know that I did. Didn’t I say that a man alone hasn’t got a fucking chance?”
“Yes, you did. Is this what you meant by it?”
Reluctantly again: “No.”
“We know you think we’re beating you on the head with all this, and we know you think we enjoy it, but we aren’t, and we don’t.”
“Meaning we can move on?”
“Meaning exactly that. Suppose you hadn’t had those introductions Sherwood Anderson gave you.”
“My God,” he said. “Is it possible I could have lived in Paris and never met Sylvia?”
He wouldn’t have thought so, but the longer he looked, the more unsure he became. Without Anderson to steer him there, would he have even known that Shakespeare and Co. existed? Sylvia wasn’t famous in 1921. She wasn’t yet the den mother for the lost generation. Sylvia had introduced him to Joyce, and had helped him meet Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein.
Anderson himself had found her shop essentially by accident, and had introduced himself to her only because she had placed his book in the window. Suppose he hadn’t gone down that street. Suppose she hadn’t placed Winesburg, Ohio in the window? Suppose Anderson hadn’t come home to tell young Hemingway he had to go to Paris, and had to see the following people?
“No. I would have found her. As soon as Hash and I got ourselves set up, we would have been prowling the streets to see what we could see. We would have found her, sooner or later.” But the worm of doubt persisted. For one thing, who had helped the young Hemingways to find a place to live but Lewis Galantiere? And how did Galantiere know of them except via Anderson?
“Dammit!” But there was no blinking the fact: It was Anderson’s letters that had opened the way, time after time, putting him into touch not only with the established writers but the important ones, the coming ones. He couldn’t help counting them out like a litany: Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and then Ford Madox Ford and the sub-editorship of “the transatlantic review,” by which he became known before ever getting a word published between boards.
“It didn’t all come from Anderson’s letters,” he said defensively. “Plenty came out of my work with the Toronto Star.”
“Nobody would suggest otherwise,” Nick said mildly. “It was your inquiry, after all.”
“All right,” he growled. “And if you wanted the point made, it’s made. I owed Anderson, and I repaid him badly.”
“That may be your point, it was not mine. Mine was merely that you see how much hung on what look like improbable coincidences. You know the Smith family, so you come to stay at Y.K.’s. Y. K. works with Anderson and so he brings him home and the older established writer and the younger would-be writer hit it off. The older writer goes to Paris, happens to see his book in a bookstore window, and so happens to meet Sylvia Beach and happens to meet important literary people she knows. Then he happens to return to Chicago mere days before the younger writers is to sail for Italy, and persuades him to try Paris instead, and offers letters of introduction. That’s a good deal of concatenating ifs.”
“Yes it is. I was lucky.”
“Whatever luck is. Would you like a suggestion? Why don’t you see what your life would have been like if you had gone to Europe on your own, instead of working for the Star?”
“I don’t need to go anywhere to tell you that. It would have changed everything. I wouldn’t have come to the attention of Bob McAlmon, for one thing, which means Three Stories and Ten Poems almost certainly wouldn’t have been published, since it was his idea. But that wouldn’t have been the biggest change. When the Star started sending me to write features about the conferences, that’s when I met the foreign correspondents and became a member of that club. And without all that, I wouldn’t have learned cablese, which had an enormous effect on my writing, and wouldn’t have met Lincoln Steffens, for another, a good guy who taught me a lot. That all came from working for the Star.”
“Then where do you go from here?”
“Let me free-associate, see what surfaces.” Within seconds: “Gertrude and Spain. Never thought of that. She’s the one who got me interested in bullfights. That’s probably why I went to Spain in 1923 with McAlmon and Bill Bird.”
“But suppose you hadn’t liked bullfighting? Plenty of Americans didn’t.”
“Not like it?”
And he was off again.
Spain. Heat. Light. Dust. Color. Wine drunk from leather flasks. Tourists, yes, but tourists as drops in the sea of Spaniards. Medieval uniforms. Churches. Wooden carts older than could be counted.
And the tastes! Every day was a feast, and it didn’t matter how simple the fare was, or how quiet the meal.
And then, the corrida itself, another world, self-contained, outside of time, living in its pageantry and tradition. The horses and the picadors, a shock. The three acts, sensed but not yet understood. The moment of the killing, in all its intensity. Good killings and bad, good cape work and bad, brave matadors and cowardly, skillful or merely tricky. Or was he overlaying all that he had learned onto that first eye-opening summer?
“And behind the scenes, Mr. Hemingway? What was happening?”
“Happening with me, you mean? I had come home. I belonged there; I don’t know how I came to be born in the United States. How could I not have liked bullfighting? That’s like imagining I wouldn’t like Spain. I was born head over heels in love with Spain, only it took me 20 years to get there. If I hadn’t gone in 1923, I would have gotten there sometime. If Gertrude hadn’t pointed me toward bullfighting, somebody else would have, or I would have found it on my own. It was like writing, it was part of me, and it would have come out one way or another.”
He stayed with the feeling, not putting it into words but living it, feeling it as precious to him. And Nick let him stay with it.
At length he said, “This procedure of yours has its uses. Why didn’t we start off this way, instead of going through all that trial business?”
Nick laughed. “Whose idea was it, after all? Or, not your idea, exactly, but it came out of what you are. You were primed to be judged and condemned. We played along until you opened up to other possibilities.”
“It sure didn’t feel like it!”
“How could it? As soon as you started to see through it, we were free to do other things.”
“But I didn’t see through it.”
“If you’ll go back and look, you’ll see that you were changing what you believed, behind your own back.”
“If you say so. What’s next?”
“Before you go too far, you might want to look at a different kind of ‘what if?’ What if Agnes had never sent you that Dear John letter?”
He shook his head decisively. “That was always going to happen, it’s just I didn’t realize it. She wasn’t in love with me, she was more in love with being in love. She was having fun in Europe. She probably wouldn’t have come home even if I had found a good job right away. And how much chance was there of that happening? To get started on a career takes time. It always does. There was never a path that she wasn’t going to write that Dear John. Let’s look at something else.”
“Then what about your return to Canada in 1923?”
If he had had a body, it would have grimaced. “That goddamned Hindmarsh. But it wouldn’t have mattered if Hindmarsh had dropped dead. There is no way I was ever going to be able to write in Canada. Toronto was a damned dull town, and my youth was ticking away. Hash and I were going back to Paris, and the only question was how long would it take. But, you know, timing matters, sometimes. If we had waited too long, some doors might have closed, and then what? Getting back when we did was as important as getting there when we did in the first place.”
“You returned to Paris in 1924 with nothing to live on but Hadley’s inheritance. That was taking a chance. Suppose you hadn’t taken that chance?”
“Suppose we had played it safe, you mean? Don’t know. Don’t even want to know. I didn’t go into that life to play it safe.”
“What’s that? I didn’t quite hear you.”
“Yeah, very funny. So you’re saying my life did have a plan after all.”
“I didn’t say it, you did.”
“Yeah, but I didn’t know I was going to say it.”
“That’s how you know it’s real. And after all, you can’t say the facts contradict the statement. When did you ever play it safe?”
“So there’s your pattern. Where did the pattern come from? Was it chance, or was it your character? And if it was your character, how different is that from saying it was your destiny, like burning your candle at both ends?”
“All right, I get the point.”
“If your life hadn’t gotten you to Paris the first time, you wouldn’t have gotten Three Stories and Ten Poems and in our time into print. And if you hadn’t returned in 1924, how would you have met F. Scott Fitzgerald, who had come across them and become a believer in your star?”
“And without Scott, maybe no Scribner’s, I get it. I should look at what if Scott hadn’t liked my books?”
“Or if you hadn’t met, or if you hadn’t hit it off, yes.”
He would never forget the meeting at the bar. Okay, erase it. He was elsewhere, or Scott never showed up. For whatever reason, their paths never crossed, they never met.
“Except,” he muttered to himself, “we would have. Scott would have kept on until we did. He could be a persistent bastard. But, let’s say we never met.”
It wasn’t like his days were empty. He was writing, he was working well. He and Hadley and Bumby were a family, and a pretty contented family, at that. And for intellectual company he had Sylvia and Gertrude and Dos and Ford and Ezra – no, Ezra had moved to Italy by then. But still, there were letters between them, back and forth. He had had so many friends, so many activities and interests. Without Scott’s disruptive presence, life flowed as it had been flowing.
He returned. “I don’t know how to think about it,” he said. “I had a good life, and I would have thought you can’t miss what you never had, but – maybe you can. It was like soup without just the right spice to bring it to life.”
“Are you saying Fitzgerald lit up the scene?”
“Until he got to be too much of a drunk, yeah.”
“And as you know, you had the same effect on others. So is looking at your life without Fitzgerald like looking at other people’s lives without Hemingway?”
“What’s your point?”
“It’s just a comment.”
“What about the career consequences?”
“If I hadn’t met Scott? Maybe none. It’s interesting. Scott was pushing Max to contact me even before he and I met, and if we had never met, he still would have been pushing him. It wasn’t a matter of him liking me as a person, it was about him wanting Scribner’s to have all the coming authors.”
Delicately: “Did you look at what would have happened if you had submitted The Sun Also Rises and Fitzgerald hadn’t been there to tell you to cut the first few pages?”
“Actually, he didn’t tell me to cut them: He showed me problems with them. Cutting them entirely was my idea. And all right, it was important. Without that fix, sometimes the book flopped, sometimes it did so-so, but it didn’t make the splash it did in real life. So, I owe him that, and that was one time he made a difference editorially. But after that, he never quite got what I was doing, so his advice wasn’t worth much.”
There was a silence, in which the sentence reverberated.
“Okay, I got it, that was ungracious.”
“It was worse than ungracious. It shows that you still haven’t looked closely enough at your relation to him. You admit that he made an important difference, then you feel obliged to devalue it, to say in effect, ‘What have you done for me lately?’ Why is that?”
“I thought we were done with psychoanalysis. We’re doing ‘what ifs,’ right?”
“Then, what about celebrity, Mr. Hemingway? You no sooner signed up with Scribner’s than you found yourself partying with people you had only read about. Suppose you hadn’t made that sudden leap into prominence?”